Why I Don’t Take Freelance Writing Jobs Anymore

If you’re a writer, the most logical side job for the weekends is freelance writing. You know, copyediting for websites or other projects that people have. I’ve done this in the past, mostly picking up jobs from my brother-in-law who designs interactive flash sites and games for people. At times, the clients need copy as well. However, I’ve pretty much stopped doing freelance writing, for several reasons.
First, freelance writing is a lot harder than clients assume. To write copy for one page of a site, the process usually involves the following:

  • Talking with the client about the content he or she wants (30 min.)
  • Researching the subject matter to better understand what you’re writing about (1 hrs)
  • Interviewing the client to determine the messages and target points they want you to cover (1 hr)
  • Finding images to accompany the text (usually sample images that you’re recommending be purchased) (30 min.)
  • Writing the material (2 hrs)
  • Revising the copy based on the client’s edits (30 min)


It can take five hours just to write one page of content, and I didn’t even mention SEO. If you’re billing at $75 an hour, that one page can cost the client more than $400. Not many people are willing to pay $400 for one page of copy. I know if I paid $400, the writing better blow me away.

A lot of people have okay writing skills and can hack out the content they need anyway. Even if the copy isn’t brilliant, it’s often acceptable. This is where writing becomes a secondary skill, rather than a primary skill.  Because clients can do it (sort of), they’re less inclined to pay others to do it.

In contrast, WordPress freelance jobs are a different story. Many people lack the technical skills to configure and design a custom WordPress site, so they can’t fall back on their own “crummy CSS skills” or something. Most people don’t know CSS or even understand FTP. They may try their hand at it, but when they open a WordPress theme file and see PHP, it all looks foreign, and they quickly realize they have no idea what they’re doing.

If I know how to do what a client wants, executing it can be fairly easy (though not always). Training, installing a blog, changing its look and feel — these are needs a great many people have but can’t do themselves.

In contrast to the demand for freelance writing, the demand for freelance WordPress design is fairly large. Right now I have more WordPress projects than I can do. I mostly relegate the work to the weekends, and save the weeknights for communication only. As more non-technical people start WordPress blogs and have needs for greater customization, the opportunities for WordPress projects will only increase.

In a recent survey, oDesk Blog found that demand for WordPress skills outstrips the growth of other skills.

WordPress as the hottest growing skill

WordPress as the hottest growing skill

The figure to note in the chart is the 427% increase in WordPress as a requirement in jobs. Surprisingly, writing is also listed, but that could actually be a bad trend for writers, because it shows writing is a more commonly expected skill, rather than a specialized skill (at least that’s how I interpret it).

The bottom line is that it’s easier to make money through your technical skills rather than through copywriting. Additionally, spending your free time with technical design leaves your creativity full. (Of course, doing side jobs at all is something that may not be worthwhile, given the time it takes away from your family and hobbies. Scott Nesbitt wrote a good post on the dilemma of freelance work.)

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

11 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Take Freelance Writing Jobs Anymore

  1. Scott

    Tom,

    Good points. Are you saying that maybe I should beef up my WordPress skills? Something that’s been on my list of things to do for a while …

    Thanks for the link back.

  2. adrienne

    Great article. Good to hear about the WordPress skills. I’ve built several blogs and enjoy doing them. I think they may eventually replace web sites.

  3. Tom

    Scott, Thanks for your comment. I’m not necessarily recommend WordPress skills, just technical skills of some kind.

    Adrienne, thanks for your note. Just curious, why didn’t you add your blog’s URL in the comment ID fields? If you have a tech writing related blog, I’d be interested in following it.

  4. Glenn Murray

    Hmmm. I agree 100% with your assessment of the challenges, Tom, but not sure I agree with your conclusion. Definitely the biggest challenge facing freelance writers is finding enough work to stay busy. And the single biggest hurdle in this process (in my experience) is, as you say, that many/most clients seem to think that kinda stringing a sentence together is the same thing as copywriting. We all know they’re wrong, but that’s not really the point.

    The point is that you need to stick at it, and you’ll succeed despite this hurdle. If you have the resources or support to handle a period of low income, all you need to do is keep pluggin’ away at your SEO and your social media. Invest everything you can into your web presence (and GREAT design). Do a brilliant job for all your clients. Get testimonials and publsh them. Cold call. Cold call. Cold call. (I called about 1000 businesses in my first year of business.) Offer clients incentives to spread the word. Make sure you have a good system in place for handling contact & project management (I use ACT) and accounts (I use MYOB). Network. Write on spec for end-clients (e.g. write a property description for a real estate agent). They don’t care so much about your extensive portfolio. What they care about is what you can do for THEM. And if you’ve already done it and it’s good, they’ll be yours forever. Do whatever you need to do to get the word out about your services and your quality.

    Unless you absolutely cannot afford to stick at it, stick at it!

    I’d be very surprised to hear of any freelance wordpress developer who earns more than a successful freelance copywriter. If the business is scaled (i.e. it’s a development COMPANY with minions), that might be another matter, but if we’re talking freelancers only, successful copywriters are hard to top.

    Just my two cents…

    Cheers, Glenn (Twitter: @divinewrite)

  5. Angus Gordon

    Good post Tom. I like your overall point – expand your skill base in areas where there’s demand. I don’t quite agree with your dire assessment of the situation for writers though!

    You say “freelance writing is a lot harder than clients assume”. Some clients, sure. But a lot of my clients find writing so difficult and painful that they regard what I do with embarrassing levels of awe! And I don’t think those clients are in short supply. The trick (as with any other service) is finding people who really need you.

    As for your cost breakdown – (1) I rarely spend 90 minutes consulting with a client about a single page! Most of my clients want multiple pages, anyway. (2) Finding images might be an extra service you offer, but I wouldn’t consider it part of the cost of *writing*. (3) $400 isn’t a lot to spend on copy – even for a single page – if it’s going to mean the difference between people buying and not buying your product. Again, it’s a question of finding clients who get this. (4) Even when people write their own copy, you can still offer to edit and polish it, so it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.

    Cheers!

  6. Jennifer Mattern

    I’m with Angus on this one.

    It’s great that you found a freelance field that suits you better, but the evaluation of the freelance writing field isn’t quite accurate.

    Those charging $400+ per page usually don’t have a problem finding clients willing to pay (while that’s far from the high end of the spectrum, to get even there you’d need to have built a pretty solid network and reputation amongst buyers already).

    At the same time those clients know it’s worthwhile for a reason – their own time is more valuable elsewhere (as in actually running their business, developing something new, or securing customers of their own). If their time isn’t more valuable than what they’d be spending by outsourcing the work, then that client simply isn’t within that writer’s target market.

    I’ve found that the biggest problem most freelancers have (writing or otherwise) is poorly targeting prospective clients–often by trying to target markets or rates their credentials can’t back up. Once you can do that and effectively convey your value to those people, you’ll thrive in any freelance field.

    Best of luck in WordPress freelancing. I’m not sure if you’re just planning to help people make tweaks or take on full theme development, but either way there’s definitely a demand. :)

  7. ragnar

    That is if you are writing and billing your buyer for $70 plus per hour, so what about the other writers out there like us who are paid by piece at $1 or $2 of 500 words each and each contents can be written in 2 hours. Tough, no?

    1. Tom

      Ragnar, if you can write 500 words for even $1 a word, and it only takes you 2 hours, my hat is off to you.

  8. Pingback: Why I Don't Take Freelance Writing Jobs Anymore | I'd Rather Be ... | Intenseblog.com

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